Orlando Magic craves stardom and relevance

It’s been a long time for the Orlando Magic.

It’s been 19 years since the team’s last crack at a No. 1 pick. It’s been 13 years since the Magic made a center an All-Star team (Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson in 2009). It’s been 18 years since the team last averaged a non-central (not Dwight Howard or Nikola Vucevic) average of 20 or more points per game (that would be Steve Francis in 2005).

Like I said, it’s been a long time.

Magic fans have always had a somewhat unhealthy obsession with what the national media thinks and says about the team.

Part of that was the attention that fell on the team early on in franchise history with Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee Hardaway strapping down the rocket ship after only three and four years in existence. This is partly due to Orlando’s position in the state as a “theme park” city in search of its own identity, and the city’s relative youthfulness compared to other major cities in the state.

The Magic as a franchise has always fought for relevance. They quickly bounced back after losing Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway to strike in free agency for Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. After McGrady pushed his way through, the team picked Howard with the first pick.

In 33 years, Orlando has always been on the periphery of relevance, making the Playoffs with a superstar player.

But it’s been a long time. Everyone was hungry to get back to that level.

The decade since Howard’s departure has been a failed attempt to bounce back quickly. Magic’s get-rich-quick scheme never materialized. And impatience only made it worse.

It has been a long time.

It’s been a long time since the Orlando Magic had a star that demanded relevance and attention. Excuse fans for getting a little excited after their first look at Paolo Banchero.

So, the Magic winning the top pick in the 2022 draft was like a breath of fresh air. It felt like a chance to get back on track.

If Orlando fans seem a bit overexcited after that, it accelerated after Paolo Banchero, the team’s somewhat surprising selection at No. 1, took the field in his Summer League opener.

It’s easy to overreact with so few data points to glean. A bad game in one of these Summer League matches will set off equally loud alarm bells.

The Summer League should always be a mixed bag. Nobody should read too much in a game or in any of these games. Still, that first impression was great.

It wasn’t Banchero’s last line of stats — 17 points, 5-for-12, six assists — that stood out for Banchero, impressive as that was. It was his way.

It’s how he threw the Houston Rockets off balance with a combination of his deliberate style and speed on offense. He drew fouls on the perimeter, something the Magic haven’t been able to consistently do in nearly a decade.

This was how he sent passes to the cutters quickly, sometimes before they were even ready. This is how he looked admittedly slow defensively, but was still able to make an impact with a big block on Jabari Smith on the edge and several deflections – a high of six according to the stats tracking from NBA.com.

That’s how he quickly asked the Rockets to team up with him in his first Summer League game because they just didn’t have an answer for him when he wanted to assert himself.

It’s been a long time indeed. The Magic clearly had the best player on the court in Thursday’s game.

Banchero said after the match that he still felt a bit sluggish. He’s been using Summer League to get back into shape and he’s fully admitted that he mostly needs to regain his lateral quickness defensively. Banchero certainly didn’t look to have the same explosiveness to get to the basket, he stuck to the jumpers a lot and used his brute strength on the switches.

In other words, as good as Banchero is, obviously it was just him dipping his toe in the water and he still has some work to do to prepare for the regular season and the next phase of his development.

We’ll have to wait and see if Banchero can match his first performance and build on it. There could well be a game where he struggles and shows his limits.

But the fact that Banchero looked so comfortable and made it clear he was the best player on the pitch quickly got everyone excited.

The Magic have long needed a player with that kind of seriousness and attention. They have long needed someone to focus their attack on. They have long needed a star player.

This is what ultimately derailed post-Howard reconstruction. The Magic never found their star to center their roster.

It was even a problem with the Magic championship with Howard. Orlando struggled to find a second star – settling on Vince Carter early in his steep decline – and ultimately fell outside their championship window in that search.

The stars always win in this league. While the super teams struggle to find their way, it is still Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James who largely dictate the titles. Teams need players at the highest level to compete for the ultimate prize.

No one should lose sight of this. And having a star player brings all the attention and importance that a team is looking for.

Orlando fans must have gone a long time without that kind of feeling. It’s still the biggest thing holding the franchise back. And that’s what the first choice promise always delivers. That’s why there was a special hand spin on this top pick.

For now, it looks like Banchero can deliver. And that raised all the hopes among Magic fans.

Time will tell if Banchero can become the All-Star this franchise has been waiting for. These first returns are certainly encouraging. And Magic is eager to foster and help Banchero reach those heights. But we’ve yet to see how he fits into the main roster – or how the main roster can ultimately adapt to him.

It’s easy to get excited. Fans are more excited about this team than they have been in quite some time.

That’s what the promise of a star brings. And that’s what the Magic want the most.

Somewhere and in someone, Magic will find it. Right now it’s easy to get excited about the way Banchero is playing and the promise he brings.

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